Psychologist Says Elephants Suffer Post-Traumatic Stress
African elephant in Masai Mara National Park. Kenya. Africa (Kike Calvo via AP Images)
Since mid-January, poachers have killed as many as 200 of the free-roaming elephants in Bouba Ndjida National Park in northern Cameroon. Although sales are banned in most countries, a growing demand for elephants’ ivory tusks is behind the slaughter.
The poachers are believed to be invading from Sudan, and have taken to throwing hand grenades into herds of elephants. On March 1, the Cameroonian government sent over 100 armed soldiers into the park to protect the remaining elephants, but the poaching has continued.
How is this affecting the remaining elephant population?
“Essentially, you’re seeing a culture under siege,” Gay Bradshaw said to Here & Now’s Robin Young. “You have the trauma, the shock, as well as the breakup of the society, which has profound psychological effects.”
Bradshaw, a trans-species psychologist who researches the effects of violence on elephants and other animals, says what happens in elephant culture after a genocide is not unlike what happens in human societies.
“A death of an individual has an impact, on the family, within the community,” Bradshaw said. “But when that keeps happening over and over and over and over, in increasing numbers, you start to get the entire fabric of the community, of the population, of the net, falling apart. You have a sustained psychological trauma, and then you do not have any of the traditional healing structures of the elephant family and culture.”
Bradshaw says elephants are very close-knit, emotional, and have strong family ties. And when elder elephants are killed, the babies don’t get the kind of care and mentoring they need and traditionally receive.
She says the fundamental unit within elephant culture is the natal family, which is led by a matriarch — typically the older female. There is a set of mothers and aunts that take care of the young. The females usually stay in the family for their lifetime, whereas the males go off to an all-male group or an all-male area when they are between the ages of 9 and 11. There, the young males enter a second stage of socialization where they get mentored by the older males until their 30s.
“It’s a very connected society,” she said. “And all of those ties have been broken, with what has been happening over the past centuries and then acutely, over this past decade.”
Although Bradshaw recognizes that there are critics who accuse her of anthropomorphism — the ascribing of human characteristics to another species — she says many characteristics are no longer exclusively human.
“When you look at brains, if you want to look at models of science, elephants and humans really share the same components of structures and the processes that govern emotion, cognition, consciousness,” she said. “All these attributes that we once used to say are uniquely human are really found in other animals – not just elephants.”
Bradshaw believes we can get valuable insight from applying what we know about ourselves to animals.
“Trauma does not just go away,” she says. “It passes through the generations. It passes through socially, culturally as well as neurobiologically. So we have lessons, unfortunately, from our own human history, of different genocides and war. And we actually see, very sadly, the scars that violence leaves on the bodies and brains of people, and now we understand with other animals.”